Recently, Rev. Fr. Athanasius Barkindo, the Director of the Kukah Centre paid a courtesy visit to The News Chronicle, where he spoke extensively with Ologun Opeyemi and Seyi Anjorin over national issues ranging from terrorism, herdsmen killings and the #NotTooYoungToRunBill.
Starting with your early years, what prompted you into Islamic Studies?
As a Catholic priest, my parents were Muslims. They converted to the Catholic faith. My mother still bears her Muslim name, Aishat. So when I became a Catholic priest, I was interested in understanding more about Islam because I grew up with cousins who are Muslims. So I had to go to Egypt to study Arabic and Islam for two years. In fact, at a certain stage, I was living with a Muslim family. So after that, I proceeded to Italy to do a Master’s programme in political violence in Islam. When I finished, I got a year scholarship to do some translation at the School of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Singapore. When I finished, the UN gave me a scholarship to study at the School of Oriental and African studies, University of London- where I did my PhD on Conflict and Terrorism. I looked at terrorist organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially the Sahel. I basically looked at how terrorist groups exploit history, memory and colonial legacy to construct resistance against the State. When I concluded, I worked briefly with Tony Blair and I was told to come and join Bishop Kukah.
Can you enlighten us on your 2014 Horowitz Foundation Award?
The Horowitz Foundation in the USA were interested in my research and wanted to contribute. After giving them few chapters of my work, they became impressed. They thought it was good for social policy implementation. The argument was that they were looking at terrorists basically from the religious ideological point of view, but I discussed history and what colonial legacy has done to many countries in Africa. So, some of the rebellion and resistance should be analysed within the context of colonial legacy.
Has any of your research work been implemented so far?
Yes. I work directly with the European Union, where we designed a Nigerian framework for the de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of violent extremism in prisons, when Dasuki was the Security Adviser. I translated over 200 YouTube videos and writings of Boko Haram from Kanuri, Arabic and Hausa into English for us to understand what the ideologies of the leaders were. This was important in setting up a framework on how to engage violent extremisms in prison, we now look for religious scholars who can use these arguments to provide counter narratives to what the leaders of Boko Haram are saying. It has been effective, especially for those who were arrested under the Terrorism Prevention Act.
What was the aim of the UN group in reviewing violent extremism in Africa?
One of the biggest funders of the UN is the American government. The American government foreign policy on terrorism is linked to global expansion of terrorism. The reactions to terrorist groups have been this intensive offensive military action against the groups. We discovered that sending soldiers alone to dismember these terrorists is not enough, so we had to develop comprehensive framework in countering violent extremism by identifying their ideologies. So, the way you counter violent extremism is different in all over the world. Countering extremism in Europe will be different from how it is done in USA or Asia. This was the reason we came in to proffer sustainable ways of countering violent extremism in Africa.
Which will you say is the most dreaded: Boko Haram insurgency or Herdsmen killings?
I think that herdsmen have really killed a lot of people, but book Haram has achieved more publicity because it is linked to global terrorism. Global terrorism is what a lot of people, particularly foreign governments are really worried about with the level of migration and terrorism activities, even in Europe. Herdsmen have been killing people even before Boko Haram emerged, but people looked at it as mere communal clashes over land and there hasn’t been serious attention paid to Herdsmen activities. As a student in England, I did a documentary on attacks of Herdsmen at borders areas, especially between Cameroon and Nigeria. These are areas with complete absence of security. So, herdsmen are killing people on daily basis in this country, in local communities, marginalised and excluded communities where there is absence of governance, security and worst of all, no media presence. That is why at the Kukah Centre, we have set up networks in local communities to gather data even where journalists cannot reach. These conflicts have been going on without proper research, and the narratives have been one way and when there is lack of objectivity in terms of narratives, the policy formulation will be deformed. Our job therefore is to gather these data and suggest policies to the government, so they can take more informed decision. The implication is that we don’t have these conflicts being domesticated at the expense of other regions. Zamfara has been largest hit, even more than Taraba, but nobody is talking about it.
What are Boko Haram and Herdsmen Ideologies?
Boko Haram belongs to what they call the Jihadist Salafism. In Islam, we have two groups: the Sunni and the Shiite, within the Shiite, we have what we call Jihadist Salafism. Salafi comes from Salaf, which means “our predecessor, the Prophet and his companion”. They believe that, in order to practise pure Islam, you must go back to the time of Mohammed. For them, you cannot practise democracy, because Mohammed didn’t practise democracy. Every law had been given by Allah and written in the Quran. What you are practising as democracy is nonsense, because Allah is the real law giver. How can some men sit in the parliament to make laws, when the law is already in the Quran. So for them, we have to go back and practise the real Islam, even if it means using violence. The second ideology is that, there is a flourishing Kano and Borno Empires and the Sokoto Caliphate. They believe this infidel colonial Europeans came to destroy these empires and constructed a western concept of State called Nigeria. And now, this State is feasting in nothing but corruption, marginalisation, injustice and exclusion. The only thing left is to destroy this state and establish this Islamic law. To end these problems, you must deal with these ideologies. But to end this, you must expand education to rural communities, teach people about nationhood and citizenship, that we are one and therefore should be tolerant and co-exist. But if we don’t deal with that and address the social and economic problems that we have; lack of employment and marginalisation of the young ones, something worse than Boko Haram will emerge.
The herdsmen conflict is not just one thing. On one hand, there are sheer criminals and bandits who are killing and stealing. There are a lot issues of communal clashes, which is contestation over land. If you go to Nassarawa state, there is a conflict between the Bassa and the Ebira within the state. These things are going on simultaneously, so we are tempted to think they are all herdsmen related. The other issue is that there are a lot of arms coming into the country. I listened to a Senate committee on migration or so, they talked about one million arms in West Africa and 70% end up in Nigeria. That is why we have all these arms littered around, it is very easy for people to access them and used them for criminalities. The herdsmen conflict is massive. The issue of ECOWAS Treaty, Article 13 or so where people can move around West Africa, the borders become very porous. There is also serious environmental issue that we didn’t take into consideration. I was at Lake Chad, a lake which Niger, North East part of Nigeria and Cameroon depend on it for fishing and animal husbandry. This lake is 10 percent low. People now have to move, and this result to physical contestation.
There is issue of impunity. We need our government to stand out to face this conflict headlong. What I will say about the herdsmen is that, their lifestyle is no longer sustainable. They don’t feel a sense of obligation and responsibility towards the environment. Herdsmen will invade a land; their cows will feed on the grass and cut down the tree, and move to another place. There is no replanting of trees; there is no resuscitation of the environment. Over time, we will all become all victims.
What’s your take on #NotTooYoungToRunBill?
Youths are disempowered in this country, that even if the bill had been passed, what capacity do they have to participate in the political process? You cannot participate in politics in this country, even in America without money. You need money to mobilise and sell your ideologies for people to elect you. The centre has been trying to organise leadership training programme for young. So at Kukah Centre, we have a fellowship that trains about 20-30 young people for leadership.
What are the innovations you are bring in as the DG of Kukah Centre?
We are trying to reposition the Kukah Centre by bringing in new strategies. We have to raise funds to implement some of these programmes. We are lucky at the centre to have someone like Bishop Kukah who has immense persuasive power, who can talk to the powers that be, and interrogate people in these places. We have succeeded in partnering with Tony Blair, Plan International and North East Regional Initiative to train people in restive areas, and some other trainings and rehabilitations across board.