Testimonial Archive Project interviewed Peter Egwudah, Program Coordinator of Oxfam International local partner Civil Society Coalition for Poverty Eradication (CISCOPE) in Yola, Adamawa State. This interview was conducted thanks to partnership with Oxfam International and Guardian Newspaper. Egwudah has lived in Yola since 2014, and has been working to support communities of displaced people and those who have lost their livelihood and homes as a result of the Boko Haram conflict. In this interview, Egwudah talks about the relationship between local civil society organizations in the region and the military, international organizations and government. He talks about the situation facing people who have lost their livelihood due to the Boko Haram conflict, and proffers ways forward for the government in improving the dire situation facing displaced people in the region. He also talks about the cash transfer program his organization extends to displaced people and the importance of the upcoming local elections in Michika Local Government Area that was postponed for the third time at the time of this posting.
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What is your name and what do you do?
My name is Peter Egwudah. I am a development humanitarian worker and I work for the Civil Society Coalition for Poverty Eradication CISCOPE. We are based in Yola. We have field offices based in Yola, Maiduguri, Yobe and Gombe and our head office is in Abuja.
So considering the situation, how has the relationship with northeast-based civil society with the state and federal government since the conflict began till now, how has the relationship changed over the years?
Well, we have to look at it in two phases before the conflict. Before the conflict, civil society organizations and the majority of government agencies did not have a good relationship and this is because a lot of people in this part of the country do not really understand what non-governmental organizations (NGOs) really stand for in the northern part of the country. They largely saw NGOs as a money-making venture that will take political sides.
Also, government agencies put in place policy, and when policies are not executed properly it is the NGOs that pick up the issues and confront government at the national, state and local government level. In a country like Nigeria, government does not accept criticism in good faith. At the state level, that synergy between both civil society and government has not been built. Not that government is not giving food or doing what they are supposed to do, but as you know we have 774 Local Governments 36 States, so resources are always scarce and apportioning resources to the different segments and communities in the society is another daunting task on itself own. The NGO have really taken on humanitarian service to support these communities with the little funds they have from their international counterparts.
I have been curious to hear from your point of view, how this conflict got bad because basically in previous interviews I’ve heard people say they didn’t know Boko Haram was like this, that it was just a religious institution and the next thing they will hear is that they start carrying guns and killing their own people. Were there people or CSOs trying to warn communities from been to friendly with some of these people, was there anything like that or did it catch you by surprise?
I think it caught everybody by surprise, but not the government. I do not think it caught them by surprise because they run machinery of government and apparatus of security so its not a surprise to them and if you read a lot on the humanitarian overview in Nigeria, you will agree with me that the root cause of the problem is not religion but also prolonged lack of development, deficit of development over the years. For example, you will be surprise that in local governments, it will takes an International NGO or UN agency to come and sink a borehole in a community. Somebody might have siphoned the money and nothing was done about it. The level of impunity and corruption in the government over the years have actually made the nation or the people not to trust the government anymore so much that anyone can come in to support them in disguise of anything and they take advantage of them and accept it and that was what happened. So Boko Haram did not just fall from the sky, they are part and parcel of Nigeria. They are Nigerian, indigenes of the community they come from. In fact all the places we see these attacks going on, they have indigene who are members of Boko Haram. The prolonged deficit of development coupled with religion and politics is what fueled the whole issue.
Many of us know that poverty breeds crime. Where people hungry and food is not given to them, the resort to whatever means to get their livelihood back. It could be through robbery, smuggling, drugs, kidnapping, oil bunkering it could be through anything and this can be. Today unfortunately what we have in Nigeria can be for people to be heard, you need to carry arms unfortunately. The strategy government should be looking at much as they are pushing the insurgency back is there should be a rapid development process back to bring back people and restore their confidence in the government because people have lost faith in governance in Nigeria not just about this administration but previously they have lost faith .
You are actually reminding me of the elections holding in Michika on Saturday. You frequent Michika and you have an office in Michika. What are you hearing? Are people even interested in any election are they even trying to vote for anybody or are they just like well whatever these people want to do let them do it. Like what’s the general temperature that you are seeing?
From conversations with the indigenes of Michika across board — youths, some of their political elite, traditional institution, religious bodies — the sense we are getting is that they are all interested and highly sensitized in this election process. Adamawa has 21 local governments, and 20 local government positions have been filled – only Michika is still remaining. This is largely because of political interest; the state government wants a particular candidate to be the chairman, while the community wants their own or another different party. Michika is a combination of everything you see in Yola. It’s the major artery to Borno State and it’s an economic hub because virtually everybody there is a business person. They have elites like the former military administrator for Lagos State Gen. Buba Marwa and have produced high governors in the state like Boni Haruna during the days of Obasanjo and Abubakar Saleh Michika. They are even often referred to as the Igbo of the northern part of the country. They really want to have a say in the political system and I think that’s where government should take lead in ensuring that all the various interest groups should be brought together to a roundtable and sensitize them on how there should be peaceful elections.
Are there any civil society efforts for peacebuilding ahead and after the election?
Vast majority of the NGOs working in the region right now are working on humanitarian response, and are not there for policy issues. This is another thing we should be looking at because if we have Boko Haram conflict and another political crisis is not handled properly, Michika might boil. It is a small election, but you can gauge people feelings and those who should represent them and I think should allow people to decide who they want to vote for without interference. We heard its been postponed by a week, hopefully they may have or they will come up with better way of allowing people exercise their franchise and elect those they want to.
Speaking of keeping the peace, let me ask about the civil society’s relationship with the military. When at the height of the violence, I am based outside of the North East there’s all these talk of the abuse on the part of the army very often .perpetrated the violence in many communities. I know there was a very big story in Bama or Baga [in Borno State], I do not remember which, just before the State of Emergency in Borno State. What do civil society organizations do in such situations or in the height of that have they tried to hold the military accountable?
Well, first for you to hold someone accountable you must be strong and have your facts. Take an average journalist who is based in Abuja. He reports anything that comes to his desk, but he has never been to the field to really understand. Same for an NGO, most of us are not equipped with knowledge of issues, so do not even know how to advocate. Advocacy needs a lot of the research, Most of the NGO exist on paper and not on the ground. So, no, the local NGOs in fairness were not able to respond, but yes, there was a lot of abuse and I think the military also understood that. That is why in 2015 under general Buratai we were called for a meeting of NGOs in the northeast. I was part of that meeting and there is a committee with military and the civil society that has been formed.
Oh, that’s important progress.
So what they do is to always meet the Civil Society and tell them what and what they have been doing. This also gives us the opportunity to ask them questions because in the military operation like this, they tell you it’s highly security issue so they do not discuss matters to you so there is a limit which you can push even though we have Freedom of Information Act in place now, because once there is a State of Emergency declared, every other law is suspended. By and large, though, the relationship between the civil society here and the military is improving. I know they are also being careful not to do things with impunity the way they used to do. By setting up that commission alone within the military circle it shows they have a link to the outside world. People are putting pressure on them from that angle, and I mean local NGOS not international ones.
So what is your sense on the situation facing internally-displaced people (IDP s)? Is it getting better or has government been doing better or is it getting worse?
I could be either negative or positive, but I want to dwell on the positive side. The fact that we are able to access these conflict-affected places to know the level of damage that has not been reached with what, is progress. All we need to do now is to make priorities clear: they need food, basic infrastructure that will keep them running, and the means to enable the people to start fending for themselves. The lack of priority is affecting the response to the conflict, because we have lots of international NGOs and they come with the mindset that they are coming to support IDPs, but they see it as a short-term project of 90 – 120 days at most then go back home. So of what value is it when you sink a latrine in a community that needs a school, food, hospital, and livelihood? We keep on giving food and that’s not what they need. We will end up turning these people into beggars and that’s not what we want.
That’s why we are telling government to step up their game and come up with a roadmap. What does the government want? Are they setting up a forum so all these international NGOs can pool their resources? We do not have roads in those communities, there are no hospitals, no functional facilities or even drugs in the hospitals. Even the local government secretariats in some communities do not function. Schools do not function, markets barely function, electricity is not there, and these are some of the main arteries of the communities. So what we I am saying is that the government should leave the issue of food aid and concentrate more on those heavy infrastructures like roads, electricity, hospital, schools and fix them. That way aid can reach people in the remote areas where we are not able to reach. For instance in Maiduguri, through the United Nation systems has provided helicopters and choppers to lift aid workers from Maiduguri to communities where there are no roads you cannot access because of insecurity. That is very good, but has the government also agreed to do work in these communities so that people can return?
Do you think it is time for people to move out of informal settlements and camps and return to their communities?
It is an act of wickedness for our government to ask people to leave the camp and go back to the community that they have not fixed. In fact, Maiduguri has over two million people still in the camps and you are asking them to leave when you have not fixed their communities? They can and should stay anywhere they need to and go about their livelihood, so long as they do not break the law.
You are doing cash transfer, how has that been like? What are people using the money for?
Yes, we are supporting them with cash and with that they can do what they want: pay medical bills, pay your children’s school fees, buy your farm input, whatever you want. Also, and here is the thing: it is actually cheaper for us. If I have to give 30 tons of rice to a community, of course I am not going to give maybe 18kg each per household. I have to buy smaller sacks, get laborers that will repack all the items. To load one truck, a bag of rice in a truck is 50 naira so if you are loading 600, it will be 50 x 600 just to load, and you have to offload and repack and load again before you are able to pack 30 ton truck you may have spent 400 -500k, including the cost of transportation. Then you get to the location and have to hire smaller trucks to load and go into community. So you will discover that to distribute a 30 ton truck, you will spend close to a million naira.
With a cash transfer, if you want to give out N15,000 to 300 people for instance that’s about 4.5 million, which goes a long way in these communities. We started a pilot phase which is ending this month in Michika in Adamawa state, Askira-Uba in Borno State, and Thika, Yobe State. Hopefully by the time we are done this month we are going to get more support from United Nation Development, Oxfam and other organizations because a lot of people haven’t been reached.
You can imagine a lot of children are not in school now. More than 2 million children are not in school of school age between the ages of 5 – 15 as we speak are not in school as we speaks danger in future in the North East. So 10 -20 years from now if they are not educated where will they be? That is another recruitment drum for any other act of insurgency that might come. Today its Boko Haram tomorrow it is something else so nobody knows, avengers today tomorrow it’s something else. We should not underestimate the mindset of a human being and if we do not nip it in the butt collaboratively with the International NGO, government and local NGO we will be having a big problem in our hand where those of us who think we’re in Lagos, Port Harcourt and the north is not our problem or what’s happening in Niger Delta is not our problem because we’re in Kano just watch your back because they might come for you some other time.