Professor Sunday Abogonye Ochoche is the executive director, Victims Support Fund (VSF), whose mandate, among others, is to raise funds in support of victims of insurgency in the North-east. In this interview with TOPE SUNDAY, the peace and conflict management expert speaks about the activities of the foundation and the way out of the Boko Haram challenges.
Giving your vision statement – having a Nigeria in which the dignity and well-being of victims of terrorism and insurgency are restored and their future assured, how far would you say this has been achieved five years after?
We are very much driven by that vision in our engagement on the process of the implementation of the mandate that the president gave the committee, headed by Gen. Theophilus Danjuma. The mandate was to raise funds in support of victims of insurgency in Nigeria, determine who the victims are, determine in what way they have been affected; determine what type of support they will require; and to advise government on the related matters that can help the victims. And that we’ve been able to do in line with our vision. We are not technically an emergency humanitarian agency and that is why you are not going to see our agency rushing in with food to I DPs camps; you are not going to see VSF distributing blankets, food or non food items. All these are of immediate emergency humanitarian responsive in nature. VSF has approached things more from a longer-lasting, short medium to longer term approach that seeks to address a number of root causes of the conflict. To engage in such a manner that the victims do not become some helpless dependent people leaving on handouts, but are people who are able to stand on their own.
We don’t want to create victims that are carried on the neck always; we want to help them stand on their feet to be able to take care of themselves. That is the expectation we have of a people whose life is restored and for whom future is assured, they have a hope. They are not just people who are vulnerable, highly dependent and who cannot stand on their own that have to wait until such a time when help comes from somewhere. That is why in most of what we do, we have gone into the area of livelihood to help people to help themselves and to build the economic system.
We had gone into the area of education to equip people, to acquire education, to acquire skills that will transform them for life. We have gone into rebuilding public infrastructure to enable a quick return of governance because we keep hearing and we know as a fact, that one of the major causes of insurgency is the essence of the ungoverned space that we have. Where people see no presence of the state, nothing is happening and part of what we do is to address most of that gap by helping or facilitating the quick return of local governance to those communities. That is why we have gone into the area of health for the people to have basic health to enable them recover. Most of what we are doing in fulfilling our visions through the mission of doing a knowledge-driven programme-be it intervention-is carried out in a very scientific manner to address those issues that will restore dignity to the people whose lives have been so violated, and to also enable them to begin to have hope for the future.
How much of intellectual dimension have you brought into this initiative via research, because it is very important to know what the data of the affected people are?
First, let me say that we don’t go into any intervention without an assessment, without facts, without data. I know at the beginning, Nigerians were concerned that VSF appeared slow in taking off. We took months to understand what the real issues and challenges were, and a lot of the priority areas that I had just listed out, we arrived at that following studies and analysis that we have done, that is to support our programme.
But remember, I said part of our mandate is also to advise government appropriately on related matters and in this; we have a research unit that has been very vibrant. The research, like you know, cannot just be exclusively done by one person. There must be the intellectual interaction, there must be the engagement of people, experts in the field and that we have tried to do very well. Right now for example, probably the biggest richest project that I know of on the Boko Haram insurgency is being conducted jointly between the Victims Support Fund (VSF) and the Nigerian Defence Academy, being funded 100% by the VSF.
This arises from the fact that as a nation, as a people, as a government, we are concerned that we still do not have a proper understanding of the Boko Haram phenomenon. And when there is no proper understanding of a problem, you are tempted to grope in the dark without solutions.
I want to believe that part of why nine -10 years after we are still where we are, is because like I said, as a nation, as a government, as a people, we have not have a proper understanding of what the Boko Haram phenomenon is. That is why we still don’t have a national narrative of Boko Haram, that is why you have a situation today where the average southerner believes that the Boko Haram is a northern problem; the average northerner believes Boko Haram is a north-east problem; the north east believes that Boko Haram is a Borno problem; an average Borno person believes Boko Haram is a Kanuri problem. So, at every level, you see such level of perception, understanding and presentation of Boko Haram because people are still seeing it from different direction because there is no comprehensive and appropriate understanding of what it is. I believe that as a nation, we need to understand what is this Boko Haram?
It is sad that after how many years of an insurgency, we still don’t know who are these people, how did they come about; how do we as a nation, came to a point where a group of people in whatever manner they organise themselves, could take over so many local governments in Adamawa, Yobe and Borno; and could engage the Nigerian Armed Forces for how many years, and that is still going on; could create the type of the problem we have and it looks like we have been so helpless in the management of this problem? How? So, from the political angle, the social angle, the economic angle, the security angle, the international dimensions, the ethnic and religious dimensions, we need to interrogate what we have faced as a nation.
I don’t think there has been sufficient interrogation on this, none from our scholars, policy makers, and that is what one of the major gaps we seek to fill by this research. God-willing, we have gone far; we are going to hold a major international conference in Abuja next year. Different researchers on the issue will come to make their presentations and we expect them to come out with significant understanding and recommendations that will go a long way in addressing the problem.
I am aware at take-off, VSF experienced some teething challenges regarding funding. How were you able to overcome this? And how would you quantify in monetary terms what the committee has been able to do?
Let me just say this, the Victims Support Fund (VSF) is non-governmental. We are a private sector-led partnership with the government. We are not on the national appropriation; we do not go to the National Assembly to seek funding for our activities. Our funding comes largely from the private sector. The global practice, even by the Kampala convention, post-conflict rehabilitation and restoration is a government-led effort. It is the government that leads, other people can only support the government’s effort and that is what we are doing.
Five years ago, studies by the then presidential initiative on the north east suggested that for the short term intervention in the north east, we needed about N6 trillion to make a difference. The entire money pledged to VSF by Nigerians in 2014 was N54 billion, the committee was able to redeem under N30 billion and that is what we have been working with. But the committee has been most prudent, putting structures to ensure accountability and maximum utilization of every kobo that Nigerians have given. And that is why we boost in the Victims Support Fund and you are in the position to go out there and verify. There is no agency that has shown presence and made the impact on ground like VSF has done in the north east. From the area of education to our livelihood programme – weather is the women economic empowerment or our dry season agricultural support programme, or our rain-fed agriculture programme to animal-fed, health care programme, to our infrastructural programme, where we have reconstructed many schools, many local government secretariats, clinics, we have provided many boreholes across the north-east. Today, we have at least 200,000 children who have benefitted from our education support programme; we have over 20,000 women who have benefited from our women economic empowerment programme; we have over 10, 000 households that benefitted from our agro-support programme; we have over 5, 000 orphans and separated children in our foster health care programme; we have built over 30 schools across the North-east; we have provided over 20 communities with water. Over 10, 000 patients have benefitted from our health care support programme across the north east. So, when you look at the number of persons ,the diversity of the areas we have worked, when you look at the number of local governments we are currently present and considering that only just over half of what was pledged was redeemed, and that is what we have been working with, you can see how far we have come.
Talking of insurgency, the attacks appear incessant and one is worried. Despite all those things you are putting in place, are you not disturbed that hoodlums may destroy them?
You are very right. We have concerns. We had some programmes like our agricultural intervention programme. For example in the Abadam, Damasak axis, we had to go back because it was no longer safe to continue in that axis. We had reconstructed a clinic in Mobbar local government which has been re-destroyed. We rebuilt a school in Gaidam and before it was open, it was attacked again. We’ve had that experience. There are even some of the things we did that people can’t even go into because they don’t feel safe enough to go back and use them.
A number of the schools we rebuilt in Bama are still underutilised because there hasn’t been sufficient return to engage that. We have that concerns for our staff that are constantly there, and we have concerns for what we are putting in place and how much it can be utilised.
Yes, that concern is there, that risk is there. We are working, we take informed risk. Although, we have had encountered with Boko Haram but we thank God they had not been that terrible on us. God is continuing to guide us but yet the situation remains very fragile and we cannot close our eyes to that level of fragility to just walk in and out of it.
There are many things we can still do but we cannot until we have better assurance of the stability of the situation.
With level of what you have done, how would describe the relationship between VSF and governments of the affected states?
First of all, we have received a very great support from the government. When VSF was set up, like I said, it was the government inviting the private sector to say look, we need help, we support. This work is huge, we cannot do it alone, and we need a private sector to come in. And if you recall that President Goodluck Jonathan himself anchored the fund raising programme for VSF in 2014. He was the anchor of the fundraising. That was the level of commitment of government to it. Government pledged N10 billion to VSF, the federal government redeemed 100% it pledged to VSF. The state governments made pledges but none of them redeemed their pledges. Now, all the 36 government states and FCT did not redeem the pledge.
Even the affected states..?
In fact, the affected states probably were the more difficult ones to redeem because they were already in major crises. They were the ones calling for the help, it was probably more understandable that they could not redeem. We expected the others to be the ones willing to come in to say okay we are really coming because they all pledged a N100 million each.
We thought this is something they could easily do. But as for the collaboration and support from the affected states, it’s been wonderful. We would not have been able to do anything without them. From the beginning, the presidential committee determined that VSF would be a lean and not efficient organisation. We now have offices in Maiduguri, Yola and Damaturu plus Abuja. Our total staff strength from the executive director to the driver is 40.
In an interview you granted in 2015, you said this government was yet to redeem its N5 billion pledge. Four years after, what is the situation now?
No, this government did not make any pledge. The N10 billion that the Jonathan pledged, he paid N5 billion; so, when this government came, it paid the balance of N5billion. It was not a new pledge, also remember, I said earlier that the federal government pledged N10 billion and they had redeemed it. The government of Goodluck Jonathan paid N5 billion and the government of President Muhammadu Buhari government paid the balance of N5 billion.
Boko Haram elements, whether Nigerians or non-Nigerians, are continually wreaking havoc. Must we continue this way? How do we put an end to this nemesis that has caught up with all of us?
Well, I have spent a good part of my life in the area of conflict management. I served as the first director- general of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution in this country. I served in the most dangerous parts of the world. I have served in Somalia, I have served in Darfur, I have served in Sierra Leone with the United Nations. So, I have spent major part my life working in the area of conflict management. And critical to management of conflict, like I have said earlier, is the proper understanding of the issues, and that we have not been able to do with the Boko Haram insurgency. We need to do that. We have a situation in Nigeria, where the level of intellectual laziness which sadly informs so much policy where you find an Hausa and a Yoruba fighting on the road, and straight away, we will say it is an ethnic conflict because it is a Yoruba man and an Hausa man. The reality might be that they had a contract and they are unable to determine how they will share the profits, and that is what caused the fight. You find a Christian and a Muslim fighting on the street, we have a serious religious conflict all. The reality is they may be quarrelling over a girlfriend. If you interpret that fight as a religious fight, if you interpret the other one as an ethnic crisis, you are not only unable to solve the problem; you are expanding and escalating the problem.
And we are in a situation where for so many reasons, religious, ethnic, political and others, sitting down for proper analysis of conflict issues have become a major challenge. For a long time when Boko Haram crisis was on, we fought ourselves to determine whether it was a terrorist organisation, we were not for so many reasons. Today, we are trying to be politically correct about the number of the conflicts around us, tagging them with names, with labels we feel more comfortable about. I think, as a people, as a government, we need to begin to put in place really the proper structures and modalities for responding to a number of the challenges we have.
As for Boko Haram, I know that President Muhammadu Buhari when he came to power, I believe it was in his inaugural speech, he said Nigeria was going to carry out a proper post-mortem, and a proper analysis of the Boko Haram crisis to determine why and how we came to where we are. He said that in his speech. I am not aware that anything has been done in that direction. I am not aware and we need to do that seriously so that as a nation like I said, we will be able to sit down to make a national resolve, following our understanding of what the issues are to say never again shall we allow this particular situation to happen or to allow ourselves to be in the situation in which we are. But we need to understand it and have that level of national resolve to be able to move forward. I am afraid; we are still far from that.