Operation Amotekun won’t be effective if personnel won’t bear arms – Ladepo, security expert

A security expert with international experience, Mr Abiodun Ladepo, tells GBENRO ADEOYE how Nigeria should deal with its security challenges in the face of Boko Haram and ISWAP resurgence, kidnappings, and others

You served in various US formations in Afghanistan, Ghana and Europe, what other experiences have you had?

I had three different tours of duty in Germany, making a total of eight years; two tours of duty in South Korea for a total of three and a half years, one tour of duty in California, one tour of duty in Ghana and one tour of duty in Austria. During those tours of duty (what we call PCS – Permanent Change of Station), I had the privilege of being deployed to conflict zones in the Balkans and the Middle East. Of course, when I had my first PCS to South Korea, it was listed as a Danger Zone.

Boko Haram and ISWAP seem to have had a resurgence recently, which some people have blamed on the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East, how much of that do you think contributed to this resurgence?

‘Defeat’ in a battle or war is when the vanquished surrenders; waves the white flag, accepts the supremacy of the victor, and redeploys troops back home according to terms stipulated in the formal talks that ended the war. I don’t think we have had that in the Middle East, North Africa and all the other places where these insurgencies have taken hold. We have displaced them, for sure. We have disrupted their activities. But they have, by no means been defeated. Let no one get too comfortable and relax. We still must be at alert and we must remain vigilant.

The displacement of the terrorists is, of course, a huge factor in their resurgence in Nigeria and other permissive countries like Niger and Chad. I use the word ‘permissive’ because Nigeria is just as vulnerable as other West African countries, but those countries do not give comfort to terrorists. The terrorists may transit through those countries, but they rarely settle down there.

Nigeria’s wealth, vast opportunities for doing business, lax security architecture, corruption in the security architecture, lack of will and determination on the part of those charged with security, limited experience and exposure to unconventional fighting techniques are some of the factors that have made it possible for insurgencies, criminality and terrorism to thrive in Nigeria. And the fact that the terrorists can easily blend with Nigerians of northern extraction in terms of physical appearance, language, religion and other cultural things also makes it easier for them to make Nigeria their destination.

The Federal Government had since 2015, few months after the Muhammadu Buhari regime came into power, said Boko Haram had been technically defeated, do you think the declaration was made too soon?

This goes to my earlier point about ‘defeat’ in a battle or war. I think the government itself knows that the declaration was made in haste. Yes, Boko Haram no longer controls 13 or so local governments in the North-East like it used to do when President Goodluck Jonathan was in power. But we are very far from defeating them, even ‘technically’. I think we substituted tactical defeat for technical defeat, and we went to sleep. We should have been more focused on tactically and operationally defeating Boko Haram and the various entities into which it has morphed into. You know, ISIS, Boko Haram and their progenitors like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, Maitatsine, etc. are not just physical. They are ideologies into which many have been converted. Defeating them must include defeating the ideologies with superior ideologies. It’s going to be a very long war. Clearly, those communities still being terrorised by these terrorists do not believe there has been any defeat. In fact, some have not experienced any reprieve!

ISWAP terrorists killed 10 Christians on Christmas Day, describing it as retaliation against the US killing of ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Syria, do you think such killings could have been prevented?

Only in the general sense that if our country had been better secured, it would have been more difficult to carry out such a crime. Listen, terrorists can strike at any time in any part of the world. They struck in America with devastating effects on September 11, 2001. Homegrown terrorists strike in the US almost every month. Terrorists strike in the UK and the rest of Europe. If they are motivated enough, terrorists will strike anywhere. But the difference with all these places – Europe and America – is that you are most-likely to be apprehended sooner rather than later. Sadly, that is not the case in our country. We have retrograded into the 12th century in terms of crime investigation and criminal justice. Despite the huge amounts that we spend on intelligence and investigations, we are going backward.

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From your experience in Afghanistan and other places, how different or similar is the insecurity situation in Nigeria when compared to others across the world?

Insecurity in Iraq and Afghanistan is due largely to sectarian crises. Some of the attacks are aimed at foreign forces in those countries. What’s the reason ISIS, Boko Haram and others are killing Nigerians in Nigeria? Religion? That’s long been gone out of fashion! I mean, killing people because of their religious faith in such a gruesome and sustained manner, and with impunity.

But the effects of insecurity are the same–existential fear; inability to plan your life; difficulty in enjoying the things you’d otherwise take for granted, like holding a party to celebrate weddings, being able to worship freely or driving without fear of roadside bombs, kidnapping, and full on assault with machine guns. All sorts of simple things that give you purpose in life are taken from you. It’s the same; whether in Afghanistan, Europe, Iraq or Nigeria. But I repeat: it is more terrible in Nigeria because the terrorists are never brought to justice; at least the ones you could link to specific attacks are rarely apprehended.

What should the Buhari regime and its security agencies be doing to tackle terrorism and insurgency in the country?

Great question! This country needs to significantly overhaul its intelligence apparatuses. No matter how many soldiers, police, Department of State Services’ operatives and other para-military officers we have; no matter how many weapons we have and how powerful they are, if our intelligence gathering, processing and dissemination are sub-par, we are not going to achieve anything.

All military and law enforcement operations stand better chances of success when they are preceded by excellent intelligence work that lays out the identities of criminal foot soldiers, their sponsors (because there are sponsors for trans-Saharan crimes like the kind that Boko Haram and ISIS are committing), where they sleep at night, where they hang out, types of weapons they have, their supply and re-supply chains, etc. In fact, if our intelligence work is good, we can take preemptive actions that thwart terrorist acts before they occur.

Now, intelligence work is of different varieties – human, signal, imagery, measurement and signature, cyber, geospatial and the rest. I know Nigeria is limited due to our technological deficiency. But we are not limited in Human Intelligence. In fact, we are most suited for it. We just need to reorganise what we have in such a way that will serve our purposes. I believe we have the resources to have the best HUMINT programme in the world. If we can turn it around and back it up with political will and support from countries that have the technology for signals intelligence and CYBERINT, Nigeria will no longer be a haven for these terrorists.

Beyond terrorism and insurgency, Nigeria also has serious problem with banditry, kidnapping, Fulani herdsmen attacks and others, what do you suggest should be done?

Every country has its socio-economic issues that cause members of its communities to commit crime. We can’t eradicate crimes completely. But we can reduce them by working assiduously to solve some of our socio-economic issues, target the most vulnerable amongst us –youths and the underprivileged – and give them hope.

That’s the carrot about which former President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke. We also must demonstrate the will to apprehend criminals, prosecute them in an expeditious and fair manner; and when necessary, be willing and able to visit severe harm or even death on criminals. That’s the stick. The stick should go hand in hand with the carrot.

South-West governors recently launched Operation Amotekun and despite initial opposition, how do you think it can be effectively run?

I can tell you though that Amotekun, or any such regional or state-run security outfit can only be good for the country. Nigeria is grossly under-policed! What with nearly 10 per cent of our police force detailed to protect VIPs! We need to hire more federal police if we can’t, like they say, have state police. I am an advocate of state police and community policing. When done properly, it is most effective. I have been an advocate of state police for the past 31 years after seeing how it works in the US. Our federal police force is a lumbering, obsolete, crude, corrupt force that, like our intelligence institutions, also needs overhauling.

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First, I agree that it needs some sort of legal backing. Yes, we need it. Yes, self-preservation is the first law of nature. Yes, I will kill a criminal that seeks to harm me or my family before I call the police. But where possible and to be a responsible, law-abiding person, I should try to get a legal weapon first. And that’s what should be done with Amotekun. It must have some sort of legal backing. In such a litigious society as ours; in a society where cases languish in courts for decades, all you need is one cantankerous person to take Amotekun to court and a judge will grant perpetual injunction (if there is such a thing), and all the efforts put into setting it up will come to naught. Again, I will leave that to the lawyers. But it gladdened my heart to hear Governor Rotimi Akeredolu say that they were thinking about legal backing for Amotekun.

Then we should allow true professionals to run it regardless of their political persuasions. I can tell you that within the South-West alone, we have well-trained and very brilliant folks in the security arena. I am not speaking about those of us abroad. I am speaking about Nigeria-based or South-West-based professionals. Talk to any Nigerian military officer or senior police, immigration or customs officer, you will see that they are as brilliant as any expert from abroad, if not more so. The problem we have is the ‘Nigerian factor’ which we insert into everything to bend things for personal, group or ethnic gains. If we allow our experts to remain focused on the mission of securing our communities, give them all the tools they need and hold them accountable for every egregious failure, then Amotekun will grow and become the template for others to follow.

I hear there is a manual for its operation, an SOP (standard operating procedure) in the process of being drafted or fine-tuned. If so, that’s great. Amotekun’s operation must be standardised. Issues like the powers and limits that it has, the areas over which it has jurisdiction, the entities over which it has jurisdiction. For instance, can it arrest a police officer? What’s the chain of command? What’s the salary structure? I know, for instance, that not all the states can afford to pay the N30,000 minimum wage. Yet, Amotekun operatives start at N30,000, I hear. How’s that going to work? Will it be by a governor’s fiat and magnanimity through their security votes or will the various legislatures have to allocate funds?

Is it a pensionable job? Will it be an admixture of full-time and part-time employees? Can the states afford to add so many people to their payroll and pension roster? What’s the training like? What’s the training cycle? Will they wear uniform? Will the operatives be limited to just those vehicles we all saw, or will they have other means of transportation like motorcycles and bicycles? These are some of the things that need to be spelt out in the SOP; and the SOP must be a living document, subject to revision and updates as situations evolve.

The biggest thing for me is that they must carry firearms. I just don’t see how, in our society, people will respect and fear a security outfit that does not carry firearms. You can see people’s attitudes with the current police force compared to how they view the military. It’s a psychological thing. Even the Amotekun operatives themselves will not have the heart to do anything knowing that they are not armed. What are they going to do? Throw sticks or stones at herdsmen brandishing AK-47 assault rifles locked and loaded with extended magazine with 60 bullets, and a couple more magazines in the pouch slung over their shoulders? I know it is a very difficult topic and the governors may not want to challenge the Federal Government on the issue yet. I hope they keep it on their to-do list.

Look, I have heard some of the protagonists claim that it is just an intelligence gathering outfit that will complement the police. That can’t be true. And if it is, it can’t be forever. If it is, we better go back to the drawing board. I mean, just picture for a moment how you will react to someone who is a security person but not armed. People can speak theoretically all day long. But when Amotekun confronts its first determined, ruthless criminal, how is not being armed going to play out? So, I support Amotekun with the full complement of what any serious security outfit in the world needs in terms of weapons and a robust intelligence collection, collation and dissemination system as I described earlier. Those in intelligence field will tell you that it is not cheap at all.

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Even for just HUMINT, we will have to emplace static, mobile, and clandestine operatives from roadside mechanics to roadside fried plantain sellers, to Uber drivers, to commercial motorcyclists, to farmers, and even to herdsmen! We will have to engage landlords and traditional rulers, especially those in the rural areas. These criminals live among us. If people are motivated with some sort of reward system, and their identities protected, they will provide information. I am confident that those running Amotekun know all these things and even more, and they are already working on them. My hope is that the sources of funding are institutionalised and protected from abuse, and the leadership remains committed to building Amotekun into something that will endure long after they are out of office.

There are arguments that Nigeria is a fragile state and state police structures could be abused by state governors for political gains and so on, how do you reconcile this with your position that the central police system cannot work?

Now, I know state police is fraught with its own issues, especially peculiar to our nature in Nigeria, chief of which is its susceptibility to abuse by governors and others. But we can build some checks and balances into it – things like the governor being able to appoint police chiefs but not being able to sack them, leaving that to a certain percentage of the legislature. And there are more things we can do to make state police strong and enduring. We can’t say because it can be abused, we are not going to have it. The current federal police system is a gargantuan failure. Even the senior police officers will tell you in confidence if you have any of them as friends or relatives.

Terrorism and banditry in Nigeria are largely being fought by the military instead of the police because the police strength have been depleted, what do you think is the implication of this if not corrected?

Ideally, the military should be fighting to defend the territorial integrity of the country. But that is when you are fighting an invading conventional army, complete with uniforms, unit insignia, physical command and control structures, etc. That’s what they are trained to do. But terrorism employs unconventional methods which require unconventional and eclectic response types.

In such a situation, all security forces should be working together in an effectively coordinated manner with the National Security Adviser at the top. But when the bulk of our police force is just not effectively trained nor adequately armed, paid, fed or clothed, you can’t invite them to go and face terrorists.

And because you can’t involve the police and other security outfits in an organic manner, the military bears the brunt. And we can see how effective even they have been.

Where do you see the problem of insecurity in Nigeria – terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, Fulani herdsmen killings, ritual killings and so on – heading if not checked soon?

‘If not checked?’ We can’t afford to not check these. The result will be the collapse of the country. We will become a pariah nation. Have you been to Somalia lately? Have you been to Libya? Have you been to Yemen? Have you been to Syria? Have you been to Afghanistan? Iraq? We can’t afford to let the country continue to slide. There needs to be a rejuvenation of the morale of those charged with fighting these battles for us. Our leaders must be able to feel shame, to feel the kind of outrage that we feel, and to tie their success in office to the security of their people.

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